By Danielle Garner
“What do we call a god who creates suffering?” asks Professor Tamir. He pauses, creating an uncomfortable silence inside of the classroom—his head roams from student to student—an unsuccessful tactic he often uses to generate discussion. As his mouth moves to begin speaking again, a voice from the back of the room interrupts him.
“I think,” says a boy wearing a neon fitted cap on his head and sinking into his chair, “the better question is what do we call a god who allows suffering.”
His response sounds less like a question and more like a declaration. The gravity in the boy’s face, the sobriety in his mouth, the seriousness in his eyes, and the callous strain in his voice introduces an acute hostility into the lecture hall.
“Indifferent,” says a girl to my right, her hands are buried in her bag and suddenly emerge with a piece of gum.
“Incompetent,” says another girl again to my right with her back leaning against the chair and right leg propped on her seat. She adjusts to the other leg and keeps her eyes on Professor Tamir, who is still standing behind his podium. He leans back and observes the class with the same fascination as a person admires a painting at a museum.
“Cruel,” says a boy to my right. His hands are folded and glasses are pushed high along the curve of his nose. He is the same guy I’ve been trying to silently connect eyes with the entire semester, not because I find him irresistible, but because he is the only other person in the room whose skin color resembles mine. His smooth shade of almond and my candy tint of toffee add that desired diversity to the classroom, the one they never miss the opportunity to brag about in the university pamphlets.
“Nonexistent,” says the boy with the neon fitted cap again.
There is a momentary silence in the room before Professor Tamir resumes.
“Anyone else?” he asks with a frivolity in his dark brown eyes. “Okay, good then,” he adds after a few more seconds of silence. He looks down at the podium and continues his lecture which, judging from the distracted look on everyone’s faces, no one hears.
I think about chiming in last minute and adding a dissenting opinion to the gallery of critics who had just pilloried my faith. But I let Professor Tamir continue instead.
When I get to my dorm after class, I immediately notice the motionless body bundled underneath my roommate’s comforter.
“Jess,” I say, looking at my phone to check the time, “you didn’t go to class?”
The bundle doesn’t move.
“Jess,” I repeat, feeling the flare in my voice and rushing over to her bed. I pull the covers off of her body, which lies listlessly on top of her mattress. Her arms are flung in different directions and legs are bent in a position that looks too uncomfortable to sleep in. She slightly moves her foot, which instantly gives me relief. Then she shifts her head and annoyingly wipes the tangled hair out of her face before turning around on her stomach and pulling the covers back over her body.
I think about motivating her to get dressed again, but silently slip out of the room to have breakfast alone instead.
The dining hall feels as empty as it always does at this time of morning – in between that rush where students are finished with their early classes. The resounding sounds of pots and pans, of playful workers’ chatter that takes place more freely in the vacancy of the cafeteria, and of machines just awakening, make going to breakfast without Jess a little less solitary. I grab a damp plastic tray and stand in front of one of the stations designated “Hunger Zone” by the banner that hangs over it.
“Morning baby,” says the worker, as she finishes pulling her latex gloves over her hands.
“Morning Ms. Patricia,” I say with a smile and hands in my pockets, observing the pile of eggs and bacon through the streaked glass.
“What’ll it be sweetheart?” she asks, holding a pristine white plate in front of her. Her hat is bulging with grey hair that peeks out from the sides.
“I’ll take the eggs, bacon, and French toast,” I point to each item as she energetically digs the spoon into the mound of yellow eggs.
“Will you be having some syrup with that French toast?” she asks now scooping a small pile of bacon onto my plate.
I watch her, intrigued with the stern concentration in her face and joviality in her eyes – a comforting incongruity. Ms. Patricia always looks out of place in the dining hall to me, taking orders from impatient college kids who only infrequently return her warm smiles. Her thin shape is buried beneath the bulky striped uniform and black apron that she wears, which makes her look something like a cartoon chemist with oversized clothes.
“Thanks Ms. Patricia, have a good one,” I say while she hands me my plate.
“You too, baby,” she grins before greeting the only other student in line.
“Hi Ms. Patricia.” I hear a familiar voice and look over to see the Resident Assistant of my dorm. She nods at me before giving her order.
I walk over to the drink station and make my choice among the medley of colorful beverages before sitting down. There are three other people in my section, two sitting together at a table further away from me and one munching on a breakfast burrito in the booth across from me. I can hear dotted lines of the conversation further down, and I find myself more intently listening for the sake of company. But I’m interrupted by a tray that emphatically drops on my table.
“Can I sit here?” asks the Resident Assistant, sliding her tray onto the surface and slightly startling me.
“Help yourself, Hally,” I say, a slight incivility in my tone. Hally rakes her fork over the eggs on her plate and begins cutting her French toast. She does this with a type of poise that accompanies ritual.
“I’m really glad I caught you. You’re tough to get a hold of,” says Hally staring at me before biting a forkful of food. I can never get used to the incompatibility between her dark voice and bright-colored hair.
“Really,” I say, finally digging into my own lukewarm food.
“Yep,” she says, in between chewing. “I’ve been wanting to ask you how Jessica’s doing.” She looks down at her plate and begins forking her food again.
“Okay, I guess. I mean you know the answer to that question as much as I do.”
“Has she been meeting with Dr. Lance?” The school mental health counselor who, according to Jessica, avoids the term “psychiatrist” at all costs and makes sure his patients don’t call themselves “patients.”
“She says she has,” I say observing another student who sits down two booths away from us, a boy in my journalism class who never speaks in group discussion, despite the professor’s threats of grading us for participation.
“Today marks a month since her last incident. Did you know that?” she says.
She stares at me blankly while suspending a forkful of food in the air. Her eyebrows are raised and eyes are cynical. The freckles scattered across her face collectively contort with her expression.
I stop chewing and drop my fork on my plate, which creates a sound cacophonous and loud enough to make the two people further down from us go quiet.
She rapidly blinks her eyes, trying her best not to roll them at me and continues eating her food in silence. The kid in the booth across is leaving and continues to stare at his phone while gathering his belongings, and the two a ways down from me are talking and gesticulating over half-empty plates. Hally takes a sip of her drink and coldly glances at me. She says a strained and hostile goodbye before leaving her tray on the table. I stay for only a few minutes more and talk with the friendly dining hall worker who always insists on wiping my table without giving me a chance to get up from my seat. Then I leave, deciding to check on Jessica one more time before going to my next class. When I get to our room, her bed is empty and shower things are gone. I think about the times over the school year when I’ve wandered the showers, my hands trembling against the white tiled walls and my voice echoing in the hollow spaces of the nearly-empty bathrooms. I think about the times I’ve called for Jessica and prayed that I’d get a response from behind the closed shower curtains that hid ominous beds of steam. I think about the one time where she didn’t respond immediately, and the panic that shot through my chest and instantly pervaded my entire body as I manically tore curtains back. I think about the time I disrupted two other people’s showers before hearing her faint response. Hally issued me a stern warning after that incident – my first strike out of a three-strike system. But the solitude, the slippery walls, and the razor blade in Jessica’s shower tote, make the dorm bathrooms a setting for my nightmare – where my imagination is always animating my worry. I think about double-checking the showers to make sure she’s okay, but realize that I’m already late for class.
Cool weather always feels out of place in South Florida. The friendly breezes that refuse to carry so much as a trace of humidity in the beginning of the year always tell the story of a dramatic shift in nature in some other area of the country.
Growing up in this region, I could never resist the belief that this recurring shift signaled a momentous change in my life – that it was God’s way of foreshadowing the beginning of a new season. His habit of introducing something new into the air, something that I could only detect by the mere fact that it lie outside the pattern of the ordinary, even if it was just weather. This feeling would always leave me as the mornings grew warmer and the days grew longer, until I would find myself in summer for the remainder of the year.
But as I walk along the sun-touched pathways after my last class of the day, and as my feet shovel littered leaves along the cracks of concrete, I meet this feeling once again. The sensation in the air, the balm of nature, or, the residual trace of a true winter elsewhere, invades my world and – judging from the eager habit of natives wearing winter boots and the fleet of students flocking to our campus’s local coffee shop – this sensation has been anxiously anticipated.
I push open the glass doors to the student activities center and sit down at one of the couches scattered across the first floor. The conversation from my early morning class still lingers in my mind, and I open my laptop to the thought of Professor Tamir’s question.
But a loud outburst of collective laughter interrupts my thoughts, and a group of students coming down the stairs catch my attention. I see my friend Georgia, the girl who’s changed majors three times; and Jason, the guy who has trouble making guy friends; and Karen, the girl who’s doing a terrible job of hiding the fact from all of us that she’s crossing; and then there’s Jessica. She has a wide smile on her face and is enthusiastically emphasizing her words with the energetic bounce of her ponytail. Georgia waves at me, and Jason yells my name for the entire activities center to hear before Jessica shushes him.
“Grace!” says Jess, “Glad we caught you. We were about to head to the dining hall, and I was just about to text you.”
I look at the screen of my laptop before addressing the group of excited faces.
“You guys just get out of a meeting?” I ask without looking at them.
“Yea,” says Karen, “throwing ideas around for the spring spread. Are you coming? I’m starving.
Jason over here was acting like it was his first editor’s meeting and wouldn’t shut up.”
“Unlike some people I actually care about the magazine so,” chimes Jason, only half-serious.
Jessica reaches over and closes my laptop, “Come on, I haven’t eaten all day,” she says, glancing at me seriously.
I haven’t eaten all day. The last time I heard those words was on the day of her last incident. I left her alone for the rest of that day afterwards, telling myself that whatever she was feeling would wear off. But later that night, I found myself frantically searching the dorms for her until I eventually found my way to the roof. On my climb up the staircase, which the school repeatedly forbade from students, I kept praying that I wouldn’t find her on top. But, without being surprised, I saw her calmly sitting on the edge of the building with her legs dangling over it. The blur of cars that were driving beneath us and the glare of dim lights that surrounded us have engraved themselves in my memory against my will. “I’m just thinking,” she told me that night in a sweet tone. Her posture assumed a tranquility that still frightens me.
Jess didn’t talk to me for weeks after finding out that I told Hally about her incident that night. She eventually was able to persuade Hally to hold off on telling her parents and consequently getting her dismissed from the college – as long as she agreed to see a counselor once a week and to never do anything like that again.
I think about this incident as we all walk to dinner together at that time of day when the sun is just beginning to touch the Miami horizon. Even in its subsiding, the sun’s fading light is still vibrant enough to leave a striking trace in the sky – I find it in the streaks of pink painted across illuminated clouds whose edges look like fading silver. An effect I can’t help but stare at a little longer while my friends disappear into the dining hall.
When I follow them, I see Hally speaking with Jessica at the salad bar. Hally’s eyes are serious and penetrating. She talks to Jess with the expression of a mother scolding her child. I can’t make out their conversation above the surrounding chatter of fellow students and the sound effects of utensils abusing plates. But anyone looking at Jessica might think that the two are having an entirely different discussion. She just slowly blinks her eyes and calmly smiles, uttering something that looks like acquiescence at the appropriate points in the conversation and making sure to maintain just enough eye contact to appear engaged. The incongruity in their behavior towards one another goes unnoticed among the bustle of the cafeteria, people moving and sliding across each other like deposited dinner trays. I walk towards them as Hally says something that looks like a goodbye. Jess politely widens her exhausted smile in response even after Hally walks away. Then she picks up a plate and scoops a pile of salad onto it.
I turn my attention away from her and towards the line at the “Crazy Wok” station, my favorite. I take my place among students refreshing their Twitter timelines, tersely giving their orders, and apathetically watching the chef sauté their stir-fry vegetables. As I make my way to the front of the line, I notice Jess enthusiastically waving me down while the others pull out their chairs at one of the tables in the dining area.
The sound of the spatula scraping across the stovetop grill comes to the foreground of noises in the dining hall. There is only one person working the station this evening, a young looking man whose eyes match his dark hair, which always remains slicked underneath his chef hat. He only looks up to take my order and then silently tosses the food on the stove afterwards. Sometimes I would see a student make a clever remark to get him to laugh or attempt to start a conversation with him – ask him about his interests or tell him something about their day. But he would always respond the same – brief but cordial, half answering them with an expert flip of his busy spatula, balancing their discussion with his craft, which no one could manage to distract him from. It’s not long before he hands me my food and I nod a thank you in return before joining my friends.
“Why don’t we just stay in and unwind,” says Karen as I place my tray on the table. “We’re going to need it after this week is over.” She leans in towards the rest of the group as if we’re in a team huddle instead of gathered around a dining hall table.
“That sounds kinda nice actually,” says Jessica, peeling the paper off of her straw.
“A week trapped inside studying for exams and y’all want to stay in?” asks Georgia, “please. I say we go out.”
“Yea I’d choose let loose over unwind any day of the week to be honest,” says Jason.
“What about you Grace?” Georgia looks at me along with the rest of the table.
I halt myself in mid-bite and stare at everyone’s expectant eyes. Jess is the only one not looking at me. Instead, she sits there with her head titled and eyes slightly squinted in deep thought.
“I’d rather stay in to be honest,” I say.
“Surprise,” says Jason sarcastically leaning back in his seat and playfully rolling his eyes at me.
“Karen?” asks Georgia with both elbows on the table. She fixes a focused gaze on her, “What about you?”
“I’m down to go out,” Karen says indifferently before taking another bite out of her lasagna.
Jessica thinks to herself, “Yea I think I change my vote. I’m with Jason, except for the ‘let loose’ part.” She giggles before continuing, “So we’re all pretty much agreed?”
The rest of the group assents.
I instinctively rise from my bed to the sound of my ringing phone. My hands fumble around in the darkness of my room before finally grabbing the illuminated cracked screen.
“Hello?” I say, my voice louder than I expect it to be. I can feel the fear pervading my body.
“Grace, thank God. Something’s happened to Jess.”
“I don’t know what happened. One minute she was fine and then she asked to go to the bathroom…next thing we know we find her lying on the floor in one of the stalls. I don’t know if she drank too much or-”
“Where are you?”
“Fillmore Memorial Hospital.”
“On my way.”
I end the call and before I know it, am nearly out the door, stumbling as I pull up a pair of sweats over my legs and frantically snatching my purse on the way out.
I sit down in one of the lacerated seats on the train and watch the scene re-scramble itself after every stop as the buildings pass me in a sweeping blur through the window. There is only one other person in my section, a woman with brown hair and honey eyes. She’s staring out the scratched windowpane quizzically, as if this is her first time in the city. Her arms are hugging one another and bundled on top of her abdomen, and there is a jet-black suitcase next to her. Probably coming from an overnight flight, I think. She politely smiles once she notices me looking at her and then continues to innocently stare out the window afterwards as if she, for the first time, was observing a scene she only had the pleasure of looking at in pictures.
When my stop approaches, I scurry off of the train and rush down the steps that lead to a dimly lit sidewalk. My feet brush past littered glass and chipped gravel on the way to the hospital. I always wonder what I’m missing out on when I pass up invitations from my friends to join them for a night out in the city. My polite no’s were beginning to wear on me. But stepping out into dusk, making my way past blinking street signs and occasional passerbys, and roving in the strange sound of street silence – the kind that only seems to settle into an atmosphere in the shy hours before dawn – sets me at peace with my nights in.
I approach the hospital from a distance and see the illuminated red letters that tell me where the emergency building is. Picking up my pace, it’s not long before I reach the automatic doors.
“Excuse me,” I say before even reaching the front desk, “I’m here for a Jessica Wane.”
The woman behind the desk looks up at me and answers in a lazy voice, “I’m sorry repeat that for me, hun.”
“Wane. Jessica Wane. She was just admitted not even an hour ago.”
The woman shifts in her seat. She’s older but not elderly, hair just beginning to grey and eye color significantly faded. She looks like she’s just past middle age and making her best attempt to gracefully wean out her former years, but doing this gradually, judging from the color of her long, neon fingernails, which were the most youthful thing about her.
“Okay listen sweetheart that’s not how this works. What you’re gonna do is go out these doors, to the main entrance, and then you’re gonna ask the front desk for her name. But you won’t have much luck seeing her tonight. Visiting hours are between 11am to 5pm and after hours require a visiting pass, which are processed and issued during the day. Are you a family member?”
I turn around and scurry towards the automatic doors again before she has time to finish that last question.
Better be, I answer in my mind.
The man behind the desk in the main building tells me something similar to the woman in the emergency waiting room, and, my choices are either wait out the wee hours of the night into morning or return home and try again tomorrow. I choose the latter.
I get there again the next morning at around 10:40am. There is a different person behind the front desk who lets me visit Jessica 20 minutes earlier than I’m supposed to. I, with unanticipated exhaustion, take my time to the third floor where they’ve told me they’re keeping her. On the way there, my feet nearly sliding past the polished floors and the hairs on my arms rising in response to the sudden onset of frigid artificial air, I don’t know whether I should be thankful or scared.
Something inside of me freezes when I approach her room number, like an iceberg has suddenly materialized deep within my stomach and is sending needle-numbing signals throughout the rest of my body. I’m unsure of what to expect but turn the corner anyway and place my hand on the cold, metal doorknob – nearly squeezing the life out of it before entering her room.
She’s sitting up and staring out the window, in what looks like serene contemplation. There is a distracted pensive look on her face that looks familiar – a blank sheen I’ve seen painted on her expression before.
“I got close this time,” she says, still staring outside. I can’t see her eyes, but already know they’ve been emptied of life.
“I know,” I say, walking closer to her bed but not quite reaching it.
“The others just think I drank too much. That’s partially true.”
“What’d you do?” I ask, still standing a short distance from her bed, trying to avoid the unnerving lifelessness in her features, which look like jagged hands had stripped the color from them.
You ever see someone with claw marks in their mind? Standing there, keeping my safe distance from the bed, it no longer feels like I’m looking at Jessica. She gazes at me with a different shade of sadness I’d never seen in her face until now, and answers.
“They were pills. Prescription pills. Can’t get any easier than that.”
“I’m sure that won’t stop you from trying again,” I say with a sudden anger surging inside of me. I instantly regret my words before even having the opportunity to take them back.
Jessica just sits there with wide eyes and a horror frozen in her expression.
“What?” she says in an almost whisper with the same amount of disbelief as a child who’s just found out one of her parents is having an affair.
I look away and shake my head before answering, “I guess I just don’t understand, Jess. It’s like you’re not even trying anymore. It’s like you think of no one but yourself.”
“I’m so sorry that this is so hard for you,” she says sharply, rabidly. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m the one in the hospital bed.”
“And I’m the one standing across from you,” I say, subdued.
“Yep, and you’ve made it clear that that’s exactly where you plan on staying. Did I unknowingly become a leper in the time I was admitted last night? What, is depression contagious now?”
I begin to inch my way towards her bed.
“No forget it,” she lifts one hand in the air, “keep your distance. You can have it.”
It’s quiet and for a while and all I hear is the emphatic ticks from the clock on the wall, the kind of sound that only comes to the foreground when invited by complete silence.
“You don’t know what it’s like, Grace,” she says looking down at the hospital band around her gaunt wrist. There’s a pleading sorrow in her tone.
“I feel like I’m marked with sadness,” she continues, “I try, every day I try, you have no idea how much I’m trying. But everyday these thoughts come to me. Every day they push me on a ledge. They flare up inside of my mind and only give me one option. Only one. They keep coming back no matter how much I fight them. And they become stronger and stronger until they’re all I can think about. Until I feel like there’s only one way to be free from them.”
Her shoulders sink and voice breaks as she continues.
“They’ve become too big for me to handle, Grace,” she cries, “and I can’t spend the rest of my life fending them off. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. Sometimes it feels like a paralyzing weight in my chest, other times it feels like an unbearable pressure in my mind, and I can’t handle it anymore, Grace. I don’t know what to do. I drag myself away from doing the impulsive thing every day, and I’m failing.”
Her head is now bowed and unsteady hands are covering her face.
I walk over to her and do what I know best – embrace her. I whisper to God in my mind and ask Him for the answers, but only feel an unbelievable sorrow as I pull her closer. She sobs bitterly, and I feel the muffled sounds of her restrained cries ripple inside of my very being. For a moment, just a moment, I sense the suffocating weight of her soul. For a moment I get a glimpse of what her crippling burden feels like, the same one that drags her to abysmal depths every day. And, for a moment, I realize where I am – latched on to her, helping her bear her burdens, and even daring to share them – is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
And in that moment I answer Professor Tamir’s question with another question of my own: Who do we call the God who, didn’t create suffering, but bore the worst kind? Jesus Christ.
About the Author:
Danielle Garner is a substitute teacher living in South Florida with an English degree from the University of Miami. Danielle graduated with Creative Writing Honors and, though most comfortable as a poet, is venturing into the world of fiction.